Justin Cohen has spent years fighting to close Rikers Island, defund jails, and tackle inequities in the city’s criminal and education systems.
And through it all, he said, he has seen a gaping hole in political representation: “The activist and organizer base here is so deep and so strong, there is such a wide array of perspectives, and that is not represented in our politics,” he said.
“There is no real radical voice for decarceration and abolition in this state.”
The 38-year-old Crown Heights Democrat decided the best way to fix that was to run for election to the State Assembly in District 56, which includes parts of Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy, to amplify progressive policies in Albany.
The seat currently is held by Tremaine Wright, who is vying for election to the State Senate in the 25th district.
Cohen, who has had a lifelong interest in politics, moved to Brooklyn in 2004. His mother was a public school teacher who started her career in Boston, as the state went through desegregation, and he grew up with his grandmother telling him tales of her upbringing in Brownsville. Those dinner conversations shaped what has been a life of fighting for equity and access for all; and pulled Cohen to Brooklyn as soon as he graduated.
“This community is one of the few places in the world where people are living alongside each other and together in a way that offers the opportunity for radical acceptance and community building,” he said.
“But that is really threatened by the divisions in our culture; I believe deeply in that possibility but I am not naïve about how hard it is to achieve.”
Cohen’s background is in education policy and advocacy; he worked on the 2008 Obama campaign helping to secure billions for some of the country’s most underfunded and under resourced schools. But, he said, in 2012 he had a crisis of conscience with the shooting of Trayvon Martin and pivoted to work on issues relating to incarceration and the criminal justice system.
While volunteering with the Movement for Black Lives and other organizations fighting for liberation, he saw a lot of the same inequities and disparities existed in the criminal justice system that he had experienced in education, and for the last decade he has been organizing around those. He is a founding member of Politicize My Death, a leading anti-gun violence initiative and Racial Justice BK, an advocacy organization for Brooklynites dedicated to dismantling systemic racism.
When COVID-19 came, Cohen knew that the disparities that existed before would be further exacerbated.
“Racial disparities with health, racial disparities with small business loans, racial disparities with housing, with access to education; it’s all just right on the surface now so we have an opportunity to push a policy agenda that addresses those things.”
He said food security, access to healthcare, and jobs and economic recovery were the most important things to his constituents right now, and the state needed to take aggressive action to fix that a the Federal Government would not.
Cohen said he was committed to community-owned solutions, with the campaign centered on the voices of organizers, tenants and families.
“Brooklyn generally– but Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights specifically– [has] contributed so much greatness to the cultural landscape we live in,” he said.
“Whether it’s Spike Lee or Jay-Z or Biggie, all of these currents are here, they live here and that legacy is here and I want to make sure this community thrives and survives in a way that builds on that legacy.”
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